Last week, as part of my growing effort to fake maturity, I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall for the first time. Laurie Anderson, noted weirdo and respected musician, was on stage performing an experimental storytelling piece over ambient synth pads (or something). She had two thousand people mesmerized by her voice, her Korg, and her androgynous clothing. It was strange and beautiful and so unlike a normal performance and, hell, this was a concert. A concert for a dignified audience with a breadth of artistic understanding. From high up on the second balcony, “dressed up” and already thinking about where I would pin my ticket stub when I got home, I smiled at Anderson’s musical soliloquy and at the peace in my life. It was all very metropolitan. Very New York. Very adult.
And then someone’s phone rang.
It was as if an angry clan of hooligans had thrown a brick through the kitchen window of my mind with a note reading “Jews Killed Christ.” In that moment, that’s really how it felt — invasive and offensive. Not terrifying in the same way, I admit that. Still, I was ripped from a sort of peacefulness and thrown into a ringtonic rage because some asshole — some forgetful, self-important asshole’s phone started blaring one of those outdated MIDI jingles that your parents still have. The kind of 3-second sample that, when heard, makes you want to bulldoze every iPhone in the room. The kind of tune that makes you cry because despite all the suffering and starvation and injustice in the world, a classically trained composer is getting paid to manufacture these “songs” to satisfy our first-world desire for more pleasant phone rings. Down here on Earth I was trying to focus on the Art happening at the world-famous Carnegie Hall, but all my brain could focus on was “Jazzy Ring #3,” as if it were a monument to human achievement that deserved to be heard right now, instead of Laurie Anderson.
I closed my eyes calmly and focused on maintaining my Zen. My attention was being stolen by a ringtone. A ringtone. I sat there in darkness, biting my lip and breathing heavily until Jazzy Ring #3 was just an echo in my head.
Allow me to back up a second. The reason phones “ring” is because, for nearly a century, telephones were stationary objects (remember that?) that one actually had to hear in order to know someone was calling (a design surely modeled on doorbells). Today we cling to our phones like vital organs with features like “vibrate” but we can’t shake the publicity of the audible ringtone. In fact, we’ve turned it into a form of expression. When a phone chimes a cute little diddy, it arrogantly broadcasts some aspect of the user’s “personality” to those in earshot. I don’t publicly announce every time I have to pee just because my bladder is “ringing,” so I object to making ringtones into “art” or “music” on the grounds that — well c’mon it’s not like you’re going to listen to the song. We have concerts for that. Your phone is ringing so you will pick it up. So pick up your phone.
Beyond the annoyance of it all, though, there is a deeper sadness I feel when a ringtone interrupts a performance. That “Oh for God’s sake” response we’re all familiar with — that’s a wariness of technology; Our phones are powered on 24/7, and we’re willing to answer a text message at any time. We check our email constantly, whenever we want, often when we shouldn’t. We’re like androids who have been tricked into thinking we have emotion, when all we really have are phones. My phone, by the way, is an Android.
What really gets me is that cellphones aren’t that old. In one generation we’ve gone from existing happily without them to wondering what life was like before them. It’s alarmingly fast, and a bit frightening. We treat our phones as natural extensions of our bodies, aware of our remaining battery life like we’re aware of how hungry we are — an elegant lie. Our phones are not part of our bodies. For many, myself included, that lie is so deep that checking our phones is the first thing we do in the morning. Before we have stood up or even collected our thoughts, we know whether anyone has tried to contact us in the last eight hours. It’s like our bodies don’t even exist, and the more we lie to ourselves like that, the more the truth will hurt. Yes, the Singularity is a lie, and it isn’t coming. It’s already here and we are extremely unprepared for it.
That sadness, that embarrassment of being too connected, of actually forgetting that I’m human and not machine, swells up in me — in us — when we hear a phone ring during a movie or during dinner. During Laurie Anderson. That ringtone reminds us of how deeply and thoughtlessly we’ve integrated this new and untested technology into our lives. We’re reminded of how careless we are, how vulnerable we make ourselves. We forget we don’t need them. The less we silence our phones, the more we let them speak for us.
Back at Carnegie Hall, as the show was beginning, Philip Glass came out on stage. I noticed that there had been no announcement from the house to have audience members silence their phones. Glass said some stuff and jumped right into the music and I thought, “That’s weird. Just ASSUME we’re going to remember to silence our phones without any reminder?” After all, most places (like movie theaters) offer that nudge. But then I realized Carnegie Hall was treating us like responsible adults — the kind of adult I wanted to be by going to Carnegie Hall in the first place. But in the middle of Laurie Anderson some idiot proved he couldn’t handle the responsibility. He hadn’t come to terms with the fact that his phone is expendable. He forgot to memento mori and as a result his phone took over the room. Anderson didn’t hear it, but as far as I’m concerned the audience and the performance both suffered because of him.
But it wasn’t him; I could have been that idiot. You could have. It was us. We should know better, but I don’t think we do. Every time a phone rings during the middle of a performance — every time my Zen is interrupted — I am reminded of just how inexperienced we are, and how much we still have to learn about ourselves. We’re supposed to solve global issues like hunger and climate change in the next decades, but we can’t even remember to turn off our phones? We can play as swanky as we want, but really we’re not very adult at all. We’re still kids.